So Superman is 75 years old. That’s astounding.
What’s even more astounding is how good he looks, given that he is now a senior citizen. Special cases like Alex Ross’ Kingdom Come notwithstanding, it seems that Superman has looked like he’s been perpetually in his 30’s since,,, well, since the beginning.
Good luck getting a senior’s discount anywhere, Supes! Not gonna happen!
Seventy-five. He’s been around a long time, and yet Superman and the other superheroes that came in his wake — Batman, Wonder Woman, The Flash, Green Lantern and more — are still with us. They’ve been regenerated — made young again — reinvented again and again in order to keep up with the times. Their adventures still being consumed by new generations of avid comic book readers.
But these were not the only heroes from that time in our history. The pulp magazines had their share of heroic figures from Doc Savage and The Shadow, to The Spider and The Avenger. And while these pulp heroes still have their fans, they are nowhere near the big business that the costumed superheroes are. So why is it that these costumed heroes have prevailed? Why is it that these heroes have constantly been renewed over the years — been made young again for a new generation of fans and the traditional pulp adventure heroes haven’t?
The simple answer to that question is this: costumes, color and sex. Comics have all three, and traditional pulp heroes don’t measure up.
According to the Diamond Distributors website, the top selling comic books for 2011 were, variously, Justice League, Batman, Green lantern and — the only Marvel character to make a showing in the top ten this year — Spider-Man. All of these titles feature muscular (or buxom) heroes in skin-tight costumes in a rainbow of colors. The line up of the Justice League is a splash of the traditional four-color printing process: red, green, blue and black. The costumes are skin-tight — practically body paint. The artists are effectively drawing nude, brightly colored, heavily muscled, adonis-like figures.
Let’s face it: If you have a body like Schwarzeneggar’s (in his prime) and perform feats of athleticism in public wearing body paint and a mask — you’re Mr. Sex.
Comic characters have also rolled with the times. Despite many of them having begun in the 1930’s or 1940’s the comics have stayed updated, modern and fresh. The same can’t be said for the pulp characters. Most of them are still stuck back in the 1930’s, in their heyday. That’s a big barrier for modern comic book buyers.
But let me shift gears here for a moment, because I want to focus on the birthday boy. Superman is an iconic character and has been almost from the beginning. Why is that, I wonder? Who is Superman, anyway?
Oh, sure, we all know the origin story of Kal-El, last son of doomed Krypton, but that’s not what I mean. What I mean is… at his core… who is Superman?
I’m not saying anything new by pointing out that Superman represents nothing more than the immigrant experience in America. Whether you’re fleeing the destruction of Krypton or the Pogroms in Europe, or the Khmer Rouge or just a crappy economic situation… just like Superman you’ve come to this new land. You’ve got to blend in. You’ve got to look the part.
Speaking of looking the part, let me digress for a moment and examine the glasses thing. I know, a lot of people have criticized Superman for having a dumb girlfriend. Lois Lane can’t tell Superman apart from Clark Kent simply because Clark wears glasses and Superman doesn’t. How can someone be so stupid and/or willfully blind? Well I’m going to explode that myth right now using two pictures of myself:
You see? I could be two completely different people! So lay off Lois!
Okay, getting back to my point: Superman donned glasses and became mild mannered reporter Clark Kent. Well how many of us are Clark Kent? Mild mannered… keep your head down… don’t make waves… don’t cause trouble. How many of us know that deep inside us is an extraordinary person? Someone who is more than just this mild mannered immigrant trying to blend in by wearing jeans, tee shirt and Nikes? Someone who is, if you could only see, super?
The answer, of course, is all of us. We’re all Superman. That’s why he’s so iconic. That’s why everybody knows who Superman is. He represented the secret longings of two high school chums, Jerry Siegel, a young child of Jewish immigrants, and Joe Shuster, a Jewish kid from Canada, trying to make their mark in Cleveland, Ohio in 1933.
So how is Superman faring after 75 years? Does he still represent the everyman who has a secret uniqueness? The comics have tried to reinvent him away from that archetype several times, but he always seems to come back to that, doesn’t he? At the end of the day, Superman toils away as Clarke Kent, his manner mild, his head down, his nose to the grindstone — solid, unremarkable Clarke.
But underneath that grey suit and those blocky glasses there is a unique being — a man who, if only given the chance, could show the world how damned Super he really is!
Superman is you. Superman is me. Superman is everybody who feels like they go through life with their best qualities unrecognized. We wait for the opportunity — that special set of circumstance that looks like a job for — who? Who we are deep down… our unique combination of skills and only that unique combination of skills and abilities — the chance to shine. Maybe we can’t fly. Maybe we don’t have a blue suit with a red “S” on the front — but maybe we don’t need that.
Maybe there is somewhere… some time… where we… where you… and only you… can save the day.
Up… up… and away!